How to deliver public services you don’t know much about

Catherine Needham

Today’s Guardian article on How to manage public services you know nothing about is mainly aimed at senior managers. But the point about increasing genericism in public services has a wider resonance, as we have been finding in our 21st Century Public Servant project. For people working in public services, there is increased emphasis placed on generic as opposed to techno-professional skills, which means that they may be deployed in roles where they lack formal professional training. Librarians for example may be asked to undertake community facilitator and connector roles as libraries reinvent themselves as multi-purpose sites. In Kent for example, libraries are used for registering births, deaths and marriages, which creates new kinds of emotional labour that lies beyond that of traditional librarianship.

The generic skills increasingly required in public services have been described by Davidson (2011) as ‘twenty-first century literacies’. These include: interpersonal skills (facilitation, empathy, political skills); synthesising skills (sorting evidence, analysis, making judgements, offering critique and being creative); organising skills for group work, collaboration and peer review; communication skills, making better use of new media and multi-media resources.

Many of these skills fall under a heading of ‘soft skills’, indeed a survey of public service employers by Hay found that employers valued ‘soft skills’ such as communication as highly as technical skills when recruiting new staff. However, there is also a greater emphasis on what might be termed ‘hard’ skills around contracting and decommissioning. What is distinctive about these skills, perhaps, is not the distinction between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ but that they are generic and cross-sectoral rather than technical and professional.

These changing needs demand new types of integrated skills training. However higher education and other training and development and support continues to offer highly specialised and professional pathways that lead to particular professional qualifications. Post-qualification training remains focused on particular sectors. Those which look cross-sectorally tend to be leadership programmes. There is a tendency to assume that public service careers are linear and specialised and therefore predictable.

Davidson C. (2011) ‘So last century’ Times Higher Education, 28th April:32-6.

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